LDS Church faithful are not the only ones who converged on the Conference Center over the weekend. As usual, there were protesters, including the so-called “street preachers” who see it as their mission to rail against the LDS Church in its front yard.
Salt Lake City officials established free speech zones to balance the protesters’ First Amendment rights against protecting thousands of people coming for conference.
It’s a process the city has done for three years now, and it appears to be working well.
The zones were created after conference-goers got into scuffles with protesters who were desecrating LDS temple garments, among other things. The protesters obtain permits from the city that allow them to set up in designated zones where they must stay and not interfere with traffic. The exact locations and sizes of the zones vary with each conference, depending on how many protesters obtain permits.
Salt Lake City Attorney Ed Rutan said the measure has helped keep the peace at Temple Square since October 2003. Since then, there have been no arrests for fighting between protesters and conference attendees.
Rutan said the zones have already passed constitutional muster. In 2004, the Worldwide Street Preachers Fellowship unsuccessfully sued the city, claiming that its constitutional rights were violated by being restricted to the zones.
Nor is the concept a new idea. Free-speech zones have been used at national political conventions for several years. However, those demonstration areas were usually located well away from the main event. In Salt Lake City, demonstrators are practically on the front steps of the Conference Center.
To some Latter-day Saints, though, the zones are a little too close for comfort. While the protesters cannot interfere with traffic, their signs, shouts and mocking displays of sacred things create a gauntlet that people have to run to get in and out of their meetings.
Tempting as it is, exiling protesters to the Gateway is not the solution. Had the city done that, the protesters could have sued and even won on the grounds that they were being deprived of a chance to have an audience for their message, especially if people speaking favorably of the LDS Church were still allowed at the Conference Center.
Having the protesters near the Conference Center satisfies their constitutional rights, as well as reminds the rest of us that the First Amendment was designed to protect the unpopular viewpoint. The street preachers’ antics are entertaining at best, annoying at worst. Either way, it’s their right, as long as they do not break any laws or interfere with traffic.
And during recent conferences we’ve seen Louis Brandeis’s recommendation to counter bad speech with good speech played out in a melodious way. Volunteers from local LDS Churches have taken up positions in the free speech zones to sing hymns as the sessions adjourn, providing a musical counterpoint to the preachers’ screaming.
We hope the free-speech zones will continue to ensure that everyone can safely exercise their First Amendment rights.